Our bodies talk, but do we know how to listen? Learn how to translate the messages of your inner experience.
The metaphor of the Three Registers- or as I refer to it- "3 levels of being" (Shelley, 1999) challenged the idea of a two-system mind (conscious & unconscious) and made counselling processes easier to understand. This can help professionals cultivate a holistic approach and help clients understand their present experience more deeply.
The First Register: Here and Now
This level is the present moment, where “awareness,” “consciousness,” “mindfulness” and “feeling awake” exist. Being in the moment allows you to take “response-ability” and direct your attention to the safety and calmness of the present that can be cultivated.
The Second Register: Not Yet Understood / There and Then
This level focuses on parts of your experience that you may be “unaware” or only partly aware of, making the unconscious experience a part of awareness that is not yet understood. Anxious anticipation, traumatic experiences and triggers often exist here.
The Third Register: Embodied Experience / Somatization
This level focuses on how the body speaks, for example, through discomfort and pain. Somatization is the translation of psychological and emotional pain into body symptoms- think of a “nervous tummy,” “nervous bladder,” or chronic pain. This register also carries the past, present and future as it is the site of “embodied aging, of cellular growth and eventual decay.”
So with this understanding, how can you learn from your body & mind?
Think of the emotions you’re currently experiencing. Perhaps you feel worried, angry, sad or frightened. Strategies to manage symptoms on this register include mindfulness, self-soothing, grounding and calm breathing. Cognitive-behavioural strategies also work by examining the relationship between automatic thoughts and behaviours. The registers overlap and so strategies often help ease the body and mind at the same time.
Here are some practical tips to calm your emotions (and nervous system):
- Walk slowly, noticing each footstep, saying “left” or “right” with each step.
- Describe your environment in detail (out loud if you can) using all your physical senses. Describe the objects around you, colours, shapes, smells, textures, amounts and temperature. You may also silently say to yourself “I am here. I am present in this moment in this space,” and “I am safe” or I” am calm.”
- Redirect attention. This exercise is helpful to redirect focus from emotional and felt sensations of pain. Look at your surroundings and list 5 things you see, 4 things you feel, 3 things you hear, 2 things you smell (or would like to smell) and 1 thing you taste (or would like to taste).
- Describe a task that you know very well in detail (out loud if you can). Act as if you were teaching someone who didn’t know anything about it. You might describe how to ride a bicycle, plant a garden, set up a shot to photograph, cook your favourite meal or perform a challenging physical task, for example.
- Remember a place that you find very soothing (perhaps the beach or mountains, or a favourite room). Focus on everything about that place- the sounds, colours, shapes, objects, textures, smells. Breathe calmly and slowly as you remember this place.
- Practice mindful breathing. Sitting comfortably, inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 3 seconds, and exhale for 6 or 7 seconds. Notice how your breath feels. Practice this exercise for as long as it takes to feel calm. You may find that you only need 1 to 3 minutes to relax into a calmed state. Click here for a visual guide on 4-second Box Breathing.
Exploring symptoms on the Second Register is best done with a counsellor. Strategies like guided exploration, projective techniques and exploring how the body stores and interprets memories and forms beliefs requires a gentle approach and often specialized knowledge and training.
Before doing any self-exploration, make sure you are in a safe environment where you feel calm. Begin by choosing a grounding exercise from above, then you can move into some self-guided reflection.
** Special note: Self-exploration question may trigger a traumatic memory. If this happens, focus instead on grounding exercises to calm yourself. **
Some questions you may begin to explore are:
- When I think about the way I am feeling right now (mentally/physically), what am I reminded of? Is there a place, time or memory that comes up?
- When I am experiencing this feeling or sensation, what belief(s) do I have about myself?
What if your primary concern is a bodily symptom? Do you have problems with restlessness, pain in your chest? Perhaps you have problems with digestion or chronic neck pain.
The first step is to see your family doctor to rule out any physiological causes for the symptoms. This will often require a physical exam and bloodwork analysis.
** Special note: If you feel emotionally triggered by certain body sensations or activities, self-exploration may negatively enhance this experience. Focus instead on grounding exercises. **
Once physiological causes have been ruled out, the bodywork can begin. Third Register exploration is recommended to do with a counselling professional who can monitor for safe exploration and recognize and calm emotional flooding. There are also some self-guided reflections you can explore. Some examples of questions may include:
- (For stomach pain) What memory or experience am I trying to “digest”? What in my life is “hard to stomach”? Is there something my “gut” is telling me? Am I trusting my “gut” or going against my instincts? Am I avoiding dealing with feelings?
- (For neck pain) What areas in my life are the biggest “pain in the neck”? What can I do to decrease this tension? How can I bring more compassion to soften the differences?
- (For chest pain) Do I need to get something “off my chest”? Where in my life can I add more self-care? Does self-love flow easily for me, or am I resisting it and why?
In addition to self-exploration, engaging the body in a physically relaxing way can redirect attention and allow sensations to exist and flow through you. Activities like yoga, swimming, dancing, gardening, stretching and running can be passive ways to engage your body. Keep your attention focused on the movements- not how it feels to do, but how the body mechanically accomplishes the task.
With this understanding of the Three Registers, you can increase awareness of your emotional, psychological and physical experience. This will improve your self-understanding and can contribute to your self-healing process. Enjoy the exploration, and remember, speaking to a counsellor can enhance this experience and help you navigate challenges and blind-spots.
Shelley, C. (1999). The three registers: An instrumental metaphor in Adlerian counselling therapy, training and supervision. UK Adlerian Yearbook, (2015) pp.11-36.
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